The Binge-Watch List: BoJack Horseman makes existential bleakness funny

bojack horseman netflix

It’s not hard to find TV shows to watch these days. But finding good ones to watch amid all the streaming video services fighting for your attention and your eyeballs? That’s more of a challenge. Every other week, we’ll help you separate a would-be House of Cards from the rest of the pack, as we look at which streaming TV shows are worth your time.

BoJack Horseman is Netflix’s new animated show—and animating it was a smart move, because it would probably require a lot of CGI to put animal heads on half the cast. The 12 episodes of the first season became available for binging in August, and it turns out there’s a really good reason for BoJack Horseman to be released in a block.

What it’s about

Imagine a world where a lot of people are also animals, so Secretariat appears on The Dick Cavett Show, and Penguin Books is run by actual penguins. In that world, Horsin’ Around was a heartwarming family sitcom where a horse-person raised three kids and taught them valuable life lessons. Thirty or so years later, the former star of that show, BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), is a washed-up actor who spends all his time sitting around his Hollywood mansion watching reruns of his show in the company of a moocher (Aaron Paul) who lives on his couch.

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A moocher named Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), a former child star named Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) and a washed-up actor named BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) come to terms with life. And breakfast.

The season’s plot involves the writing of BoJack’s memoirs, which of course requires a ghost writer (Alison Brie as Diane Nguyen). Then that plot gets set aside for several episodes to establish who everyone is, but it’s the basic excuse for the show existing. BoJack can’t write it himself because he’s too caught up in his mad whirl of watching 30-year-old reruns of himself.

A lot of television shows focus on horrible people, building on the model of Seinfeld to create shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the characters are basically gleeful sociopaths who rampage around without consequences. But BoJack Horseman is a bad person because of things that have happened to him in the past and decisions he’s made. He’s bothered by it, but he can’t will himself to change.

What makes it interesting?

The cast is great. BoJack is played by Will Arnett from Arrested Development, and he’s supported by Alison Brie (Mad Men and Community), Amy Sedaris (Strangers With Candy), and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), among others. Fans of stand-up comedy or podcasts will be interested to learn that Patton Oswalt plays a variety of roles, while Paul F. Tompkins plays a friendly dog-person named Mr. Peanutbutter.

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Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) is unhappy in her relationship with Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). Mr. Peanutbutter is always happy, because he is a dog.

The more interesting aspect, though, is the way the tone of the show changes over the course of the season. It starts as a cartoon about a laughable loser with a lot of jokes about sex and drugs. By the end of the season, while the sex and drugs are still there, the loser’s no longer so laughable. The series turns into a bleak exploration of someone who’s worried that he may be worthless—it’s an unexpected turn for a show that could have been completely goofy.

What makes it not so great?

It’s ugly and crude—and that’s two different criticisms. The art of BoJack Horseman is deliberately unattractive. At least, I hope it’s deliberate—it would be a shame if everything looked this bad by accident. But BoJack Horseman is also crude in the sense of thinking it’s hilarious to watch a horse-person have sex with a cat-person. And it kind of is, but you maybe don’t want to watch it happen so many times.

It’s definitely not a show for children. But in a lot of ways, it might be a show for adults with children’s senses of humor.

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Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) is BoJack's sometimes-girlfriend, and also his agent. This relationship makes neither of them happy.

What’s the math?

Full House times a horse plus 30 years divided by a sense of overriding doom and self-doubt.

So how is it?

If you watch the entire season, it’s really good. It’s a strange place to find a rich, interesting character, but hey, life is strange sometimes. If you watch only the first handful of episodes, it’s a completely different viewing experience, and one that I do not recommend.

How many hours should I watch at a time?

Two. Watch the first four episodes and take a moment to reflect on the show. It’s not very good, right? A lot of sex jokes that seem like they’re just there because Netflix told the writers they could put in whatever they wanted.

Then watch the next four. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. This is getting deep. Now tackle the last four. Wow, right? That really took a turn. How about that scene where BoJack was just begging for someone to tell him he was a good person? Dang.

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